The truth about slums

Submitted by cathy n on 8 April, 2009 - 11:09 Author: Molly Thomas
Planet of Slums

Now I recently made a resolution not to read any more depressing books. I'd read books about aid workers in Haiti, Bosnia, Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda. And before that, I'd read Planet of Slums.

Don't let that put you off. This book is a bit depressing because it speaks the truth. It does not pretend that the Western world is doing enough for slum-dwellers nor does it pretend that the problem will go away. On the contrary, it describes a terrifying picture that has haunted the minds of politicians for thousands of years. In Rome, the barbarians rebelled and ever since, governments have always been wary that down-trodden people may rise up. They have been afraid of the very people that are most deserving of our pity and compassion.

I don't think the slum revolution is happening anytime soon. However, it may happen if governments don't try to eradicate slums. The slums are growing at 25 million people per year: more than the entire population of Australia. They will keep getting bigger and bigger until appropriate housing is built. The book discusses IMF and World Bank 'structural adjustment programs' and dismisses them as the schemes use up a lot of money and are quite ineffectual.

Most people living in slums cannot afford to pay for their home to be improved or to pay the rent that these 'improved' homes attract so it only helps people in the formal economy: those with steady jobs. However, it is the ones at the bottom of the heap that need help most: those who beg, steal or are involved in illegal activity. These people have no steady income and are quite helpless.

The book begins by trying to explain what a slum actually is and trying to explain how they come to exist. It also attempts to explain the socio-economic difference between people in relatively prosperous countries and those in the slums of poor countries and why it exists. Why do we have lots of slums in, say, Sao Paolo, and not any in Brisbane? Planet of Slums then attempts to explain where governments have tried to help and failed and how well-meaning people and ideas sometimes do not help slum-dwellers at all. At the moment, all that seems to be being done is that they are trying to put a bandaid on an immense wound. They're covering some of the bleeding but more is being poured out by the second.

Another idea that is considered and disregarded is 'self help schemes'. This is where the local authority may provide materials but all the work must be carried out by the people themselves, sometimes resulting in poorly built housing which is dangerous and not a lot better than the original housing. This is cheaper for the authorities which means that money can be more evenly spread but this scheme does not really improve living standards. It marginally improves some housing but it doesn't make a real difference to living standards within the slum.

One of the messages of the book is the unexpected statement that there is not enough housing, food and clean water to go round for all the people in the world. This book will shock you and make you feel very uncomfortable in your comparative wealth. When I read that half of Nairobi's population live in 18% of the city area, I felt guilty that I was one of the lucky people - one of the people who have food, clean water, health care sanitation and shelter. This book will make you realise how lucky you really are. So, if you're ever feeling sorry for yourself, read it. You'll feel a lot better.

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